The Inevitable Tragedy of American Christianity
A long time ago, I used to believe that most of the world’s problems could be solved if more people became Christians.
A long time ago, I used to believe that most of the world’s problems could be solved if more people became Christians.
If only more people prayed, read their Bibles, sang worship songs, and accepted Jesus into their hearts, then all our nation’s anger, strife, immorality, violence, and racial division would subside or (at the very least) become more manageable.
More Christians, fewer problems. The world was clearly sick, and we alone held the antidote. Lost in the darkness, only we could illuminate the way for the lost and wayward. Our faith gave us answers, purpose, and community.
But it also gave us something else. Something a little more problematic and insidious.
In Seculosity, David Zahl writes,
“So fundamental is our need for connection that when belonging isn’t readily found in conventional spheres like church, neighborhood, office, or home, we will look elsewhere and anywhere for it. It is no coincidence, then, that politics serves a tribal function for more and more people. Because when you share an ideological affiliation, you share not only stories and foundations but antagonisms. And nothing bonds people closer together than a shared enemy.”
Looking back, it’s clear that what we really wanted was more Christians cast in our own image, who shared our theological framework, political ideology, Biblical worldviews, and — of course — a shared collection of philosophical enemies from which to wage war at the ballot box. Though we wouldn’t put it in so many words, what we believed the world needed — more than anything else — was more people in it who thought and believed and voted and feared just like us.
And, barring all of that, we needed to get as many Christians as possible into positions of influence — in government, media, arts, education, business, and the arts — to ensure that America remained a “Christian nation.”
In theory, this makes a lot of sense. I mean, if your chief aim is to grow your community by recruiting or converting like-minded individuals, then the potential for interpersonal conflict should decrease. Or, at least, that’s what we’d like to believe would happen.
We tend to forget, as so eloquently expressed by Russian philosopher Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And Christianity isn’t immune to Solzhenitsyn’s observation.
There were chaplains on the slave ships that ferried human cargo across the Atlantic. The atomic weapons that obliterated civilian population centers in Japan were blessed and prayed over before being loaded onto U.S. bomber planes. The antisemitic writings of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation hero who purportedly nailed his 95 grievances to doors of a Catholic church, were used by the Nazi government’s propagandists to convince German Christians that the imprisonment and expulsion of the Jewish people was a righteous cause. White slave owners in the South used the Bible to justify slavery and, a hundred years later, their descendants used the same Biblical texts to defend so-called “separate but equal” segregation policies.
The spread of Christianity (or the increase of more Christians in positions of power) is not always accompanied by the spread of more faith, hope, justice, and love. Like water and oil, Christianity and power don’t mix well, and like orange juice and toothpaste, the results are often very ugly when they do.
I think this is why vague platitudes from Christians calling for more peace, unity, prayer, Bible reading, worship, and gospel preaching feel so empty and disingenuous in the wake of national tragedies or watershed moments — like the past summer’s Black Live Matter protests or the recent insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol.
It is, for lack of a better term, spiritual masturbation. Sure, it may feel good at the moment (and win you a few hearty “Amens” on social media), but it doesn’t contribute anything worthwhile to the conversation. Instead of acknowledging complicity or responsibility, spiritual masturbation lets Christians place the blame on “man’s sinful heart” and the solution “in God’s hands” — all while blithely sidestepping our own culpability or the practical steps we can take to prevent something similar from happening again.
Pimping out the Gospel for political gain will always backfire, and using evangelism as a means to a sociopolitical end will always result in far greater consequences than any perceived victories. The damage wrought over the past few years by Christian Nationalism will stain Evangelical Christianity for decades to come.
The continued exodus of young people from the Church has far less to do with the influence of atheist professors, the Hollywood “elite,” or Critical Race Theory, and more to do with a desire to no longer participate in a political party masquerading as a religious movement.
Unfortunately, the commercial weaponization of nostalgia (or, the strategic oversimplification of the past) has led many Americans to believe there was an unspecified time in the not-so-distant past when America was “right with God” — a date range I’m still searching for in vain.
In the same way that acknowledging the flaws in one’s marriage doesn’t (or shouldn’t) indicate a desire for a divorce, honestly wrestling with Christianity’s entanglement with nationalistic idolatry shouldn’t have to lead to the dissolution of one’s faith or patriotism. But, at the same time, any sort of theological or political worldview that elevates America above any other nation on Earth is idolatry.
And, let’s get one thing out of the way: Despite artistic pleas to the contrary, America doesn’t have a “soul.” It’s a geological landmass constrained by man-made borders and geographic boundary lines. America has never and will never be a Christian nation. To paraphrase theologian Greg Boyd, you can’t have a Christian nation any more than you can have a Christian petunia or aardvark. And, in the words of the former pastor and spiritualist Rob Bell, “Christian is a great noun but a poor adjective.”
While many of us would be quick to condemn the Prosperity Gospel (the notion that God awards wealth, health, and safety to people who earn God’s favor) as heresy, how many of us grew up believing in a Prosperity Gospel for America? But the Prosperity Gospel isn’t any less heretical for nations than it is for individuals.
As journalist Chris Hedges puts it in his (must-read) book, Empire of Illusion, in an “age of image and entertainment…and instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. We are incapable of handling its confusion.” So, instead, we “ask to be indulged and comforted by clichés, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious.”
In an article for Relevant Magazine, Zach Hunt writes,
“Patriotism becomes idolatry when American ideology becomes the narrative that defines our lives when being a good American is no different than being a good Christian and vice versa.”
And people in the grip of idolatry have a bad habit of justifying any means to achieve the ends their ideology convinces them they deserve. This is the reason idolatry is one of the biggest issues in the Old Testament. And there’s an entire section of the Bible — the Major and Minor Prophets — dedicated to messengers warning God’s people of tolerating injustice and putting their hopes in power-hungry rulers.
Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist who fled Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II, wrote,
“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult. By patriotism, I mean that attitude which puts your nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice…Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”
I’m not saying you can’t be proud of where you came from or have a political preference. I’m just saying you shouldn’t view your country as God’s gift to the world or your political party as God’s last best chance to save America. And, I may be way off-base here, but I don’t think Jesus has any interest in “saving” or “healing” America — It’s not a living thing; it’s a piece of the Earth’s crust that required the slaughter of an indigenous population for us to “own” (also using Biblical justification) and an over-reliance on slave labor to jumpstart our economy. If “God’s Providence” requires the killing or economic/physical oppression of other peoples, then it didn’t come from God, but from self-righteous men attempting to justify their inhumane actions with out-of-context Biblical precedent.
In Inspired, Rachel Held Evans writes,
“The truth is, you can Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose…This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, What does this say? but, What am I looking for?”
And when we take Scripture out of its historical context and draw false equivalencies between the tiny nation-state of Israel in the Old Testament and America today, we can convince ourselves that what our country needs in order to thrive is a theocracy, a government and culture led by Christians for Christians.
But past and current events have shown us that those efforts are fated to fail spectacularly, and the tragic results are inevitably used as ammunition against the very Gospel we try to proclaim.
In a letter condemning the Christians who encouraged and participated in the misinformation campaign that led to the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote,
“The sight of “Jesus Saves” and “God Bless America” signs by those violently storming the Capitol is about more than just inconsistency. It is about a picture of Jesus Christ and of his gospel that is satanic. The mixing of the Christian religion with crazed and counter-biblical cults such as Q-Anon is telling the outside world that this is what the gospel is. That’s a lie, and it is blasphemous against a holy God.”
Christianity in America is literally in its most privileged and powerful position in the religion’s 2,000-year-old history, and any attempt to convince you otherwise comes from a place of deep dishonesty or ignorance. But if Christians want to play the “game of thrones” like the rest of the world, we’re going to get burned, stabbed in the back, or turned into an ironic punchline.
And when that does happen, don’t whine about “persecution;” it’s just the risk you run when you play the game.
Are Christians capable of acts of unfathomable love, mercy, and servant leadership? Yes, and they happen every day. Can America be a beacon of freedom, justice, and truth for the rest of the world? Yes, and in a lot of ways, it has been. But those praise-worthy attributes aren’t exclusive to Christianity or America.
So, before we respond to traumatic events with calls on social media for “more prayer,” “more worship,” “more Gospel preaching,” and “more Bible reading,” we need to examine our own hearts and ask ourselves:
Is there something I need to publicly lament and repent of before I pitch my religion as the solution? Does my religious tradition bear some responsibility for what happened? Did my silence or unwillingness to confront misinformation spread by friends and family members contribute to the larger problem? Have our religious ideologies been manipulated and hijacked by conspiracy theorists, political leaders, or media outlets to achieve an unjust end? Are we humble enough to acknowledge that maybe we’re the ones who’ve been taken advantage of? And, do we really believe Jesus’s table is big enough for a plurality of theological and political perspectives, or do we only want to share a meal with replicated versions of ourselves?
However, I don’t mean to imply that every viewpoint deserves a spot at the table. If your ideology is cloaked in white supremacy, conspiracy theories, and fascist nationalism, it needs to be excised from the whole. There’s a huge difference between entertaining differences in political opinion, and tolerating that which actively seek to dehumanize other image-bearers of Christ and bear false witness. Because when the people of God tolerate intolerance, intolerance wins.
Let me reiterate: Among Christians, there will always be differences in opinion of how we should participate in a democratic republic like the United States. But, if you believe God loves America more than He loves any other country on Earth, then you’re worshipping a God of Nationalism. If you preach the Warrior Christ at the expense of the Suffering Servant, then you’re preaching a false Gospel. If you’re trying to impose “Christian values” on those who do not share your faith through the sheer force of political will, then you’re following the God of Colonial Imperialism.
Auditing and critiquing one’s own faith tradition isn’t heresy; it’s responsible stewardship. Unity requires accountability, and accountability requires humility. And cultural domination has never been the intended goal. If it was, I think the trajectory of Jesus’s life would’ve looked a whole lot different.
Instead, we have a Savior who broke bread with those with whom he disagreed, crossed racial divides, listened and acknowledged other people’s pain, washed the feet of the disciples who would soon abandon him, and prayed for the men who killed him.
Nine Books To Help Recognize and End Political Idolatry
Here are nine books that really helped me see American Christianity and Conservative Evangelicalism in a new light. No, these books won’t turn you into a bleeding-heart liberal, but hopefully, they’ll give you the perspectives and historical context necessary to lobby for reform and spark your imagination for a more prophetic and justice-oriented Christianity that the world so desperately needs right now.
Jesus For President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals — Shane Claiborne (https://amzn.to/38sDBWK)
The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church — Gregory Boyd (https://amzn.to/3hX2JIk)
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump — John Fea (https://amzn.to/3seoCaP)
The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power — D.L. Mayfield (https://amzn.to/3hUwBow
)Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb — Keith Giles (https://amzn.to/3oqgm4Y)
Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy — Amy Peterson (https://amzn.to/3s8Weqa)
Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile — Rob Bell (https://amzn.to/2JWFRvL)
The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism — Jemar Tisby (https://amzn.to/38suTHG)
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation — Kristin Kobes Du Mez (https://amzn.to/3osLAZo)
Disclaimer: As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a small percentage from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.